It wasn’t called the Factory for nothing. Andy Warhol was a master of the aesthetic assembly line—harnessing all manner of talents in his various projects. When he began making talkies in 1964, he needed lines for his superstars to read (or not). Enter Ronald Tavel, the 28-year-old Brooklyn-born playwright who coined the term “Theatre of the Ridiculous” and, somewhat ambivalently, adapted his 1965 coffee-house agitprop The Life of Juanita Castro, wrote a dozen original scripts—including Vinyl (1965), a superbly desultory travesty of A Clockwork Orange—and provided two scenes for Chelsea Girls. Tavel died last spring; Anthology is honoring his memory with a retrospective of 10 Factory movies—plus White Savage (1943), a Technicolor vehicle for the writer’s favorite star, Maria Montez.
According to the just-published Factory history Pop, Warhol was initially less interested in Tavel’s writing than the sound of his voice (“the wet snake in the garden of Eden,” per one friend). Tavel is a memorable audio presence in Warhol’s first synch-sound movie, Harlot (1965), riffing with two other off-screen bon vivants while a platinum-blond Mario Montez lasciviously peels and eats a bushel of bananas; he’s also the unseen co-star of Screen Test #2 (1965), auditioning the same “Miss Montez” for the role of the gypsy girl Esmeralda in a remake of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Among other things, Tavel feeds the actor a number of ways to enunciate “diarrhea,” “as if it tasted like nectar in your mouth.” Supremely good-natured and girlishly enthusiastic, Mario is unfazed, spontaneously articulating the Warhol credo: “No matter what I do, it somehow comes out right—even if it was a mistake!”As the star of Hedy (1966), inspired by Hedy Lamarr’s arrest for pilfering some cosmetics, Mario again stands up to humiliation—maintaining a gracious hauteur through the lengthy “face lift” that opens the movie, a nasty collar at the hands of tough girl Mary Woronov, and a trial during which the star’s five ex-husbands testify against her. The somewhat lethargic movie ends when Hedy is condemned, like Socrates, to drink hemlock. Mario aside, the attractions include Jack Smith, looking bored in the role of the star’s lone fan, and the Velvet Underground (still in their early avant-drone phase) heard vamping and playing with feedback throughout.
Tavel also scripted Horse (1965), featuring a living equine prop among the Factory regulars, and the Edie Sedgwick vehicle Kitchen (1965), a “naturalistic” sitcom apparently filmed in the star’s Upper East Side efficiency apartment. Although part of the ensemble, Edie steals the rarely screened Space (1965), an avant-garde experiment meant to involve readings from eight unrelated Tavel scripts—a plan soon dropped in favor of more spontaneous, regressive behavior. Immediately expressing her boredom, Sedgwick takes charge. She chats with a friend, performs her magnetic sitting Frug, baits the bewildered guest superstar, folk singer Eric Andersen, and, without ever moving an inch from her strategic position beside an enormous wall mirror, dominates the crowded set, which hilariously collapses moments before the camera runs out of film.
‘Beyond the Absurd: Ronald Tavel & Andy Warhol,’ December 10 through 17, Anthology Film Archives